There weren’t a lot of people on the Northern Plains and their settlements appeared only sporadically. Out there amongst the expansive void a place of a thousand residents would be called a city and drivers might not see another one for an hour. I wondered, where did people even buy their groceries? That didn’t mean the space was lacking in interests. The terrain, so alien from my normal experiences became the prime attraction.
I treated Mt. Rushmore (map) as a do-over. Me and some friends rented a recreational vehicle and drove around the United States visiting many of its famous national parks long ago in 1992. I recounted a small portion of that journey in Crossing of South Dakota on Interstate 90 on my travel pages. It included a stop at Mt. Rushmore where I recalled feeling underwhelmed. The massive sculpture seemed so small and distant, a disappointment. And couldn’t they have cleared the debris pile? Would I still feel this way, an older and hopefully slightly wiser version of myself almost a quarter century later?
At least I brought a better camera. This was the best we could manage with a cheap Kodak Instamatic point-and-shoot film camera during the pre-digital days of my previous effort:
My Earlier Visit to Mt. Rushmore in 1992
I’d downplayed the experience so much that I created low expectations for my wife who’d never seen the sculpture. She felt we had to go there despite my minimal enthusiasm because she couldn’t conceive of driving directly through the Black Hills without stopping at Mt. Rushmore. It was one of those sites, she noted, that all Americans needed to experience at least once in their lifetimes. I grumbled a bit and muttered that she might be disappointed although I didn’t disagree with her logic. We drove up to the park, still mobbed with tourists even after Labor Day, and walked towards the viewing deck as we pushed past disgorging busloads. I didn’t have anything better to do I figured, while I tried to clear away my earlier impressions. Yes, it was better than my past experience although the entire notion of defacing a mountain in the middle of nowhere still seemed weird. My wife thought it was incredible, I’m guessing because the genuine version eclipsed the negative vibe I’d so carefully crafted ahead of time.
Several loyal Twelve Mile Circle readers suggested that I should visit the Crazy Horse Memorial (map), just a short hop from Rushmore. Sure, why not. People seemed to enjoy carving outcrops with giant sculptures in the Black Hills. I might as well take a peek at their handiwork.
Crazy Horse’s emerging presence on Thunderhead Mountain served as a fitting counterweight to the image of US presidents appearing on Mt. Rushmore. It represented the point of view of the original inhabitants, the Oglala Lakota of the Great Sioux Nation. Many of them resented everything Mt. Rushmore presented, the defiling of a sacred mountain with gigantic sculptures of their oppressors. The insult couldn’t be removed although they could commission an even bigger and better sculpture of their war leader Crazy Horse (~1840-1877) who resisted territorial encroachment and died battling US troops. It was more sensible than carving an oversized middle finger although I wouldn’t blamed them if they’d done that instead.
Work began in 1948. Much remains undone. The current sculptors dedicated Crazy Horse’s face in 1998 and moved on to the horse. When finished, Crazy Horse will sit atop his steed with arm pointed forward. The sculpture will stand 563 feet (172 m) high and 641 feet (195 m) wide, possibly the largest in the world. They have not accepted any Federal funding in order to maintain independence. The project continues to move slowly as money allows. Crazy Horse won’t emerge completely during our lifetimes and maybe not even in the lifetimes of our children at the current pace.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
I mentioned earlier that I took a detour to Theodore Roosevelt National Park (map) mostly as a pretext to capture a couple of extra counties I’d never visited before. What a lucky decision. The park was practically empty, an otherworldly corner of North Dakota’s badlands. We hit the southern unit based in the town of Medora. I didn’t have much to say about Medora because it seemed like they rolled-up the sidewalks after Labor Day. I had a tough time even finding a sandwich for lunch. The place looked nice enough in a faux old-timey "western" kind of way although it resembled a ghost town in mid-September.
We drove into the park and took the 36-mile (58km) Scenic Loop Drive. A word of caution, when signs posted a 25 mph speed limit they meant every word of it even along the completely empty back section. Thank you Mr. Park Ranger for, ahem, letting me off with a verbal warning when I truly deserved a ticket. Much obliged.
The loop offered several scenic overlooks, some right by the road and others needing short simple hikes. My favorite was called the Wild Canyon Trail and it led to a bluff high above the Little Missouri River. The park was noted for its wildlife although we didn’t experience much of that other than a few prairie dogs and a small herd of wild horses. We didn’t see the famed bison although several hundred roamed freely there. It became a running joke for much of the rest of the trip until days later when our luck improved in the Black Hills. Instead we were left with the incredible scenery which more than held its own ground.
See! Pixilated Bison!
Ironically, as I leafed through photographs upon our return, I noticed a few black dots and zoomed way in. They were bison. The bison were always present during our visit to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and ready to be discovered if we’d only looked a little harder.
This was my second trip to Devils Tower (map), seen previously on that same epic journey as my original visit to Mt. Rushmore. In contrast I recalled being awed by Devils Tower, a thousand foot (300 m) remnant of an ancient volcanic plug. Once again I walked around its base, neck craned skyward in appreciation of the spectacle and searching for climbers working their way to the top. We didn’t stay overnight so I couldn’t confirm if the campground still screened "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" every evening or not. I bet they did.
Most of the terrain lacked the dramatic flair of badlands, mountains and extinct volcanoes. There was a vast emptiness all the way to the horizon, hour after hour. I never got bored. The loneliness fascinated me. Once I drove a hundred miles (160 km) from the Montana border (map) to the town of Baker mid-afternoon with perfect weather. I never saw another car in my lane ahead of me or behind me the entire time. Maybe a half dozen cars drove past in the opposite direction. That was some serious Big Sky.
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr
Evidence of earlier migrations appeared as we rolled along our Center of the Nation journey, evoking a time when people crossed these High Plains without benefit of motors. Initially the migration involved early Nineteenth Century explorers and hunters of European descent pushing from the East Coast into lands long settled by Native Americans. Then came their brethren at mid-century in successively larger waves to avoid religious persecution or to reach the goldfields or later to homestead in fertile valleys farther west. A few of them remained in the empty plains although most of them simply passed through on their way to Utah or California or Oregon or wherever.
oregontrail by erikthenorsk on Flickr (cc)
I encountered small slivers of their ghostly paths in Wyoming and later in Nebraska. There weren’t a lot of options for those people brave or desperate enough to consider a transcontinental journey in the days of covered wagons. Emerging trails featured different starting and ending points although many of them converged at places towards the middle due to underlying topography, the river valleys and mountain barriers that favored certain routes. The Mormon Trail, the California Trail, the Oregon Trail, the Pony Express, the telegraph system and railroads all followed similar paths at points. I converged there as well for a stretch of about 75 miles (120 kilometres), reflecting upon some of those early pioneers’ experiences at several noteworthy landmarks.
Ironically I’d climbed a different Chimney Rock earlier in the summer in North Carolina. Arguably, the Chimney Rock in western Nebraska garnered much greater historical significance and name recognition (map). Pioneers walking the trails would have seen this landmark looming on the western horizon, a bony finger to the sky, for days before they passed it. Even today, so instantly recognizable, the state of Nebraska chose to feature Chimney Rock on its border signs and its state Quarter.
Chimney Rock rose more than 300 feet (91 metres) above the surrounding, almost level terrain. It became iconic, a famous landmark referenced ubiquitously by pioneers compiling journals of daily life along the trails. There were hundreds if not thousands of accounts. Native Americans revered the outcrop too. The local Sioux didn’t have chimneys and named the spire for something more recognizable to their hunting and gathering society, bestowing variations of the name Elk Penis upon it. That didn’t sit well with the sensibilities of new arrivals so it became Chimney Rock to those conversing in English.
Regardless of name, the towering stone signified an important transition in a long journey across a vast continent. People walking the emigrant trails understood that the promontory marked the end of the plains. Soon travel would slow, with a gradual uphill climb towards the Rocky Mountains.
Another thirty miles (50 km) farther west following the banks of the North Platte River, emigrants encountered Scotts Bluff (map). This presented a significant obstacle. Early trails skipped the 800 foot (250 m) bluff using a southern bypass called Robidoux Pass. Mormons on their way to Utah and the gold rush 49’ers heading to California generally took the detour. A few hearty souls took a more difficult shortcut at a lowpoint between Scott Bluff and a neighboring bluff. Things changed in 1851 when the US Army Corps of Engineers improved the shortcut and named it Mitchell Pass. It shortened the trail by eight miles (13 km) — saving at least a half day of walking — and it quickly became the preferred route.
Trail widths weren’t as precise as one might imagine. Anyone who has ever experienced a dry dirt road during the summer would understand. Oxen and wagons threw dust into the air. Pioneers didn’t travel sequentially one-behind-the-other, rather they fanned-out widely to avoid dust, so trail widths bore little resemblance to precisely defined modern roads. However the tables turned at Scotts Bluff. Wagons had to pass single-file through narrow Mitchell Pass. The pounding of 350,000 people with wagons and oxen created some of the most visible signs of the Oregon Trail still in existence. Here, at Scotts Bluff National Monument, one can literally walk in the footsteps of those earlier travelers. The swale created by thousands of wagons dug several feet deep into the underlying soil (clearly visible in the photo I took).
Continuing west along the passage of the North Platte River another fifty miles (80 km) brought emigrants to its confluence with the Laramie River. Fort Laramie (map) offered respite and protection, a spot occupied since the 1830’s when a private fur trading post opened. The US Government recognized the strategic significance of this position and acquired the post in 1849. It became the Army’s most important presence on the Northern Plains, a way to protect wagon trains and keep a strong military force amongst Native American tribes who rightfully resented incursions upon their territory.
Fort Laramie held its key position through the entire pioneer period of the late 19th Century. It become an anachronism when transcontinental railroads replaced wagons and as Native inhabitants were forced onto reservations. The fort disbanded in 1890 and most of its assets were sold to the public. Much later the Government re-acquired what was left to create Fort Laramie National Historic Site.
Cold Spring Campground
Cold Spring Campground (map) was much less significant than the other trailside sites I encountered. It was the westernmost site on my brief journey on the trail so I wanted to mention it anyway. Leaving Fort Laramie, pioneers would have arrived at the Cold Spring Campground probably after the first full day of walking. It offered a place to camp overnight with a reliable source of water. Soldiers from Fort Laramie also dug rifle pits into the nearby hillside for additional protection both for the emigrants and for their own workers who quarried stones nearby to improve the fort. There were dozens of other sites like this along full length of the trails.
I had an opportunity to cover only a very short segment of the conjoined Mormon-California-Oregon Trail path. Now I’d like to pick one of those trails and follow it in its entirety from east to west. I will place that on the long 12MC list of activities I hope to cover someday.
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr
I returned from my much-anticipated Center of the Nation journey about a week ago. Those readers who followed the 12MC Twitter account already received a steady dose of foreshadowing about this event, a final installment of my 2015 Twelve Mile Circle "season of travel." I took a lot of great trips over the last several months. It will be nice to stay at home for awhile before as I plan the next set of adventures.
Early Morning Race in Bowman, North Dakota (map)
I faced a bit of a quandary. The entire premise of this adventure focused on my efforts to chauffeur a participant in Mainly Marathon’s Center of the Nation race series from site to site. There would be six running races (Marathon, Half-Marathon or 5K options; my participant chose Half-Marathon) in each of six states in six days; September 14-19. I’d spent very little time in the selected remote corners of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado so I was on-board with the concept immediately. I could pad my County Counting score while hopefully scrounging a handful of fascinating sites scattered amongst the desolate, empty terrain.
Traveling wasn’t the issue. Rather, I’d promised to avoid any further Center of Anything articles after I posted Centre of Australia way back in 2009. At that time I noted at least five major calculations plus several minor variations that could be used to determine the center, all producing different values. I threw my hands in the air and said, "any claims to being the centre of anything on a landmass would be somewhat bogus, more entertainment than science." I continue to stand by that statement. The United States could have a huge number of centers, one for each of the myriad mathematical models for the Lower 48 States and then again for the 48 States plus Alaska and Hawaii. Yikes!
Yet the whole inspiration for the races focused on their proximity to one of several supposed Centers. I had no choice but to revisit that topic.
You thought six races in six states in six days was crazy? Check out this climber I photographed scaling Devils Tower in Wyoming (map). We spotted several climbers, tiny little dots slowly working their way up the massive cylinder. The complete audacity of their extreme physical efforts could only be fully appreciated at the other end of a telephoto lens. I couldn’t even imagine how something so steep could be scaled.
Now back to the rest of the article…
The Fake Center
South Dakota’s race in Belle Fourche (pronounced FOOSH as I quickly learned) incorporated the Center of the Nation marker within its course, a nice touch I thought (map). The course began uphill at the Visitor Center, ran past the Center of the Nation marker amid flags from every state, and finally continued onward towards a path along the town’s Riverwalk.
It was clear that the central marker in Belle Fourche had been based upon the inclusion of all 50 US States — the center for the 48 contiguous states fell farther south and east in Kansas — and I understood the method of calculation thanks to the Center for Land Use Interpretation.
This was determined as the point at which an arc connecting the geographic center of the 49 states and the geographic center of Hawaii would balance. This point was established on the admittance of Hawaii into the Union, in 1959…
The spot had been determined and recognized by the U.S. National Geodetic Survey so it was as good as any Center of the Nation, and maybe better than most. However I’ve also engaged in a bit of deception. The actual spot wasn’t located in that attractive park along the gentle river flowing through Belle Fourche. As someone quoted in a 2008 New York Times article, "In the Middle of Nowhere, a Nation’s Center" explained, "We’re not pretending to be the actual center… We’re providing a convenience."
I’d agree, it was convenient.
The Real Center
I felt a natural compulsion to visit the real center, or at least the real center as defined by one of several possible calculations that also happened to included Alaska and Hawaii. It could be found about 20 miles north of Belle Fourche in a farmer’s field, with the last several miles down a dusty gravel road (map). I noticed a pickup truck parked at a pullout as I approached. I hadn’t seen another vehicle since I’d left the highway, and amazingly someone else happened to be visiting that obscure marker at the same time. I think we both displayed the same dumbstruck look, of awed fascination that somehow we weren’t alone in our pursuit of geo-oddities.
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr